The gnarly vines of Zinfandel, once thought to be discovered in California, are now DNA proven to be from Croatia and southern Italy
Columns Taste of Wine

Zinfandel has a rich history and stories to tell

Prior to Gove. Jerry Brown and now Gavin Newsom, the action movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor of California.

In addition to a craving for expensive cigars, the “governator” as he was affectionately called, enjoyed his Napa and Sonoma Zinfandel. “Zin,” as some like to call it, was at one time the most popular wine sold in California.

Possibly at one of his star-studded parties, the idea got embellished that California should have a wine to call its own. It had a state flower and a bear, so why not proclaim Zinfandel as the wine born and raised in the golden state. Thankfully, just before he signed the declaration, wine experts revealed to Arnold that Zinfandel, like other varietals, gained fame in California but did not originate here. There is evidence to indicate that Zinfandel was traced back to about 6000 BC. Ancestors of the wine grape were shown to live in Puglia Italy and Croatia, across from the Adriatic Sea in Europe.

A pioneer of Napa Valley wines, Mike Grgich, who at 95 is still making great Zinfandel at his vineyard in Calistoga and growing up tending the family winery in Croatia, recognized that California Zin was the same as the Plavic Mali grape in his home country. He persuaded the University of California at Davis, with the finest reputation for advanced studies on wine with DNA analysis, to research the relationship with California’s Zinfandel.

The name came when in the 1840s, California’s growers starting using cuttings from a Massachusetts nursery with Austrian roots, advertising “Zinfandel” vines for sale. It grew vigorously and provided grapes for a very pleasant beverage. The wave of “blush” wines in the 1970s brought new popularity to “white Zinfandel.” Up to the late ‘90s, Zinfandel was the most produced red wine grape in California, replaced eventually by Cabernet Sauvignon.

Mike Malcolm is the district manager for BV wines of Napa Valley, shown with James Kern, territory rep for Classic wines, at Vittorio’s in San Diego

Grown in the right places such as Sonoma, Napa Valley, Lodi and the Central Coast, it has a bright, strong–bodied berry flavor with Mediterranean spice. Most Zin wines are 15 percent or more alcohol, which can be a unique wine experience. Zinfandel appears now to be coming back. Leading Zin grower Rombauer of Napa Valley purchased 20 acres of Renwood Zinfandel wines in Amador County near Napa, bringing a total of 690 acres of vines into the Rombauer name, with five different Zinfandel brands. Zinfandel is rarely blended. It would dilute it down and it wouldn’t be the same. However, turn it around and add Zinfandel to such historically traditional wines from Bordeaux, and you have a wild and crazy, delicious discovery. Such a wine burst on the scene in the early 2000s. Dave Phinney, a young adventurous winemaker, called it The Prisoner. It could be the most copied blend in California. For more, visit zinfandel.org.

BV Wines of Napa Valley

This French-style Beaulieu Vineyard with a Napa history since 1900, recently presented its portfolio at Vittorio’s Trattoria with a four-course dinner. Founded by George de Latour in the Rutherford district, BV gained fame with the help of winemaker and hall-of-famer Andre’ Tchelistchef, a revered maker of Cabernet Sauvignon. Under the guiding genius of Tchelistchef, one of only five winemakers ever for BV, European-style winemaking was popularized, with cold-soaking fermentation done for extraction of color, flavor and tannins. Longer aging in oak brought out the complexity and personality of the wines. The 2015 is the latest vintage ($33) and went well with the grilled filet mignon.  Visit bvwines.com.

Wine Bytes

  • The new West End Bar & Kitchen in Del Mar opens its doors to the great Napa Valley winery, Chateau Montelena, for two nights of wine history in Del Mar, Feb. 27 and Feb. 28, both at 6 p.m. This is French traditional winemaking at its California best, paired with exquisite American cuisine in a five-course meal. Cost is $75 each. RSVP at (858) 259-5878.
  • Craftsman Tavern in Encinitas has a Greek Wine Dinner at 6 p.m. Feb. 27. Enjoy old world wines like Anatolikos, Oenops and Tsiakkas with Greek food favorites like Souvlaki, Lamb Kofta and sautéed Garlic Shrimp. Five-course dinner and five wines for $65 per guest. RSVP to Mike at (760) 452-2000.
  • The 2019 World of Pinot Noir is at the Ritz-Carlton Bacara resort in Santa Barbara Feb. 28 to March 2, including Grand Tastings on Friday and Saturday. View details and ticket pricing at worldofpinotnoir.com
  • Vittorio’s Trattoria in Carmel Valley San Diego has the Valley of the Moon Winery in Sonoma presenting four wines with a dinner menu course for each, at 6 p.m. Feb. 28. Cost is $60 per person. Call (858) 538-5884.
  • Country Line and Sip Dancing is featured at the new La Fleur’s Winery in San Marcos from 7 to 8:30 p.m. March 2. Dancing and party atmosphere for no charge. Wine, Sangria, cheese and crackers available. Full details by calling (760) 315-8053.

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